Film Review: PoticheThat great, poised beauty of the screen, Catherine Deneuve, reminds us here what an able farceur she can be.
It's 1977 and Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve), the blithely happy, unthinking doormat of a trophy wife to her tyrannical husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), finds her world turned upside-down when he is taken hostage by the disgruntled employees of the umbrella factory he runs. She contacts the Communist union leader Baban (Gérard Depardieu), who has figured in her past and is now the town mayor, to help her negotiate with the workers. She also begins to manage the factory with her right-wing daughter (Judith Godrèche) and left-wing son (Jérémie Renier). She's a smashing success, and even decides to run for Parliament, but then Robert returns.
Director François Ozon, one of the least predictable auteurs in cinema, does another left turn here with this very old-fashioned boulevard farce, written for the stage in 1980 by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy (the team also responsible for the frothy Cactus Flower and Forty Carats). Potiche (the title is French slang for “trophy wife”) very much has the feel of a traditional, decidedly commercial play, but Ozon gleefully instills it with his own quirky individuality and surprise. From the first shots of Denueve blissfully jogging in the woods and sweetly addressing winsome forest animals, an unreal farcical world is established which elegantly fits the material like an Hermes glove. Her staid, homey, entitled life in the beginning is contrasted with the harsher world of business she invades, and both are given the benefit of Ozon's presciently detailed observation. The film is a tad overextended, but an all-around audience pleaser for both high and lower-browed viewers.
Deneuve gives one of the strongest performances of her career. So often cast in the past for her perfect, glacial beauty and dignity, she can be a passive cinematic presence, but here she really involves herself and also reminds us what a deft comedienne she is, with the most aristocratically light touch. The cartoonish aspects of the premise are echoed in her suspiciously youthful face, and in the beginning scenes, singularly dressed as a proper haute-bourgeoise matron, with an unflattering Margaret Thatcher hair helmet, she provokes hilarity without having to utter a word. Having made seven films with Depardieu, more jovially ursine than ever, she shares an easy rapport with him, unseen since maybe Hepburn and Tracy. Baban is the kind of proletariat role Depardieu can play in his sleep, but it is to his credit that this actor never coasts, and imbues the role with a thwarted romantic passion for Suzanne that is highly affecting. Sergi López pops up delightfully in a very sexy cameo as a man from Suzanne's younger days.
When it comes to playing snotty prigs, Luchini is, of course, a past master, and his comic inventiveness is always fresh and bracing. He also gets a nice performance rhythm going with Karen Viard, who amusingly plays his tightly wound, long-suffering secretary/mistress Nadège, who, along with everyone else, falls under Suzanne's potent, burgeoning feminist spell. Godrèche, in Farrah Fawcett hair, and androgynous Renier, in the skintight, disfiguring 1970s clothes of the era, which he pulls off with Gallic élan, are both super-attractive and spirited as the kids.